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What a weekend in the Westchester/Hudson Valley region. With teams from five different counties, two sections, and two different private school leagues competing in playoff games or playoff-like atmospheres, there was a ton of excitement. Here’s a look at the top stories from the weekend:
Headline: Stepinac heads to its first CHSFL AAA championships game. It wasn’t easy, but the Crusaders weathered a big comeback from the speedy and talented Xaverian Clippers before getting a big strip near the goal line by Vincent Narog in a 27-21 OT victory. Narog had a big 75-yard touchdown run on a reverse earlier in the game. Stepinac solidified itself as at least the second best team in the CHSFL for the second year in a row and it looks like Stepinac’s AAA days are here to stay.
Top storyline: Section 1 only sends two teams to the state semifinals. For the first time in state playoff history, Section 1 will only have two teams playing the weekend before Thanksgiving. Croton-Harmon and Dobbs Ferry were the only teams to take care of business against Section 9 foes. It’s also a good time to mention that each season Section 1 has played a “3 games in 11 days” scenario, those teams have failed to make the Carrier Dome. Coincidence or trend?
Storyline you might not know: Rye Country Day finishes first undefeated regular season. The Wildcats have been on the rise in recent years talent-wise and even made a NEPSAC bowl game last season. However, an undefeated regular season had never been accomplished before this year. RCDS beat rival Hackley, 35-6, to complete the unblemished season behind another big performance from its offense and quarterback Garrett Washington. Now, the Wildcats will face Pingree from Massachusetts in its second consecutive bowl game, another first for Rye Country Day.
Best game (I & II): CHSFL semifinals. Within hours of each other, rivals Stepinac and Iona played in separate semifinal games that came down to the wire. The potential for a “game of the century” championship rang throughout the county after Stepinac won its thriller against Xaverian. Iona Prep, however, fell short against league and regional power, St. Anthony’s, 14-10. The Gaels had the ball in St. Anthony’s territory late in the game before a costly turnover ended all hopes of an all-Westchester CHSFL title game.
Biggest surprise: Cornwall cruises past Poughkeepsie. Is it a surprise that the Dragons beat Poughkeepsie? Absolutely not. Cornwall is an experienced program and can hang with the best of them, but 44-19? That wasn’t expected by anyone — including Cornwall. The Dragons are rolling with wins over Wallkill and now the Pioneers. A date with perennial Section 2-power Burnt Hills looms in the semifinals.
Under the radar: Croton skill players not named Jesse Mainiero step up. When you hear stories about Croton, they usually start and end with quarterback Jesse Mainiero and some great linemen thrown in the middle. For Croton to make that next leap to a state title, other offensive threats needed to step up. They did in round one of the states. Nick Grous (who missed the state playoff run last season with a lacerated spleen) rushed for 164 yards and three touchdowns, and Trevor Wolsencroft and Brian Soares each rushed for touchdowns in a 46-3 win over Marlboro. Alex Starr showed off his open-field ability with an electric punt return and, oh yeah, Mainiero still rushed for over 100 yards and two scores.
Best offensive performance (I): Eddie Ritch, Dobbs Ferry. In the Eagles’ first return to the state tournament play since 2007, Ritch ran for 259 yards and four touchdowns on just 16 carries in a 47-13 win over James I. O’Neill. Ritch has been banged up this year with a thigh bruise and is finally healthy. I’d say his performance proved that. Ritch’s explosiveness is back just in time for a semifinal showdown with Hoosick Falls, yet another perennial-power from up north.
Best offensive performance (II): Saxon Smith, Chester. “Action Saxon” (My own stab at a nickname) did it again for the Hambletonians. The speedster ran for 227 yards and four touchdowns in the 54-8 victory over Haldane. Smith’s four touchdowns gave him 45 on the year, breaking a 12-year old Section 9 record for touchdowns in a season originally held by Fred Riullano of Delaware Valley. Smith is just 78 yards away from the Section 9 single-season rushing record, which Riullano also set in 1998. To top it off, it was also Chester's first-ever state tournament win.
Best defensive performance (I): Austin Taps, Stepinac. Taps, Stepinac’s 6-foot-5 defensive end, had the game of his career against Xaverian in the CHSFL AAA semifinals. The senior star had 13.5 tackles and two sacks against an offense with some serious explosiveness. Taps was also in on the final tackle/forced fumble during overtime that sealed the victory. Taps will need to have another big day against the triple option of St. Anthony’s next week in the Crusaders’ first AAA championship appearance.
Coach of the week (I): Tom Lynch, North Rockland. Despite dropping a heart-breaking 13-10 double-overtime game to Shenendehowa, Lynch and his Red Raiders had a remarkable season. Lynch rallied his program all the way to a Section 1 championship after finishing around .500 last season and losing its first game of the year to Clarkstown North. Lynch and his staff contained an explosive Plainsmen offense during the state quarterfinals, but came up just short. Lynch is certainly a candidate for coach of the year.
Coach of the week (II): Ken Barger, Poughkeepsie. Selecting two coaches who lost games this week as coaches of the week may seem like a cop out, but at this point it’s a season-long award. If you ask anyone in Section 1 who the nicest guy around is, you’re going to hear the name Ken Barger more often than not. Barger took Poughkeepsie to its first Section 1 championship a week ago and capped an undefeated season within Section 1. He leads the Pioneers with humility and respect and has completely transformed his program. Like Lynch, he’s one of my coach of the year finalists.
Looking ahead: There are six games for area teams this week. The Class B, C, and D state semifinals, the CHSFL AAA championship, the NEPSAC bowl, and the Section 1 Exceptional Senior Game. Try to get out to as many as you can. Football is almost over. Not to put pressure on Croton-Harmon and Dobbs Ferry, but not since 1995 has the Carrier Dome been without a Section 1 team during state championship weekend.
Final thoughts: The three games in 11 days system must go. Section 1 has to get back on schedule with the rest of the state. Nobody at North Rockland or Poughkeepsie will admit that it was a factor, but it has to be. Football isn’t meant to be played four times in less than three weeks. The reason Section 1 uses the format is because of the state tournament, but what's the point if it’s going to hinder the chances of a state championship run?
Email John Malone at firstname.lastname@example.org | Follow him on Twitter: @MSGV_Malone